Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Superhero Stories

John poses in front of the Chicago skyline 
John and his mentor, Aaron 
Hey, I’m John! I’m close to my twentieth birthday, I come from a quiet town in the west of Germany near the Rhein called Wiesbaden, and I am a sucker for superhero stories. I still haven’t figured out how exactly they hooked me in the first place. Maybe it was because I spent too much time in front of the TV when I was too “sick” to go to school; maybe because all those superheroes looked pretty awesome in their spandex suits; or maybe every eight year old boy wants to save the world. But as I grew up I realized something and it was not “John you’re a grown man, you should stop thinking about Superheroes”. I realized that most of these stories are one dimensional. You always know who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, and which one you should like while hating the other. I started asking myself how these stories would look if they wouldn´t be so one dimensional and I found my answer here at Franciscan Outreach.


John and his community celebrate German Unity Day
As a full time volunteer I work overnights at Franciscan House, Franciscan Outreach’s emergency shelter. So I spend most of my nights at Harrison and California, taking care of the North and South dorms which offer shelter to around 230 men. In the summertime, the lights go out at 9:30 PM, then I go on break, which includes a quick trip back to the Marquard Center and at 10:30 PM my night shift starts officially. For most of the night, it is just me and my desk- which is stationed in the North Dorm with a nice view across the beds and the individuals who sleep in them. From time to time I take a tour through the facility to check that everything is safe and sound. Sometimes, I take a detour to our office to grab some food and fresh coffee. Don't get me wrong, not all nights work that way; usually, it is quite the opposite. But the nights full of events or emergencies are not the nights I want to talk about. The quiet and uneventful nights give me the opportunity to listen to real superhero stories. On those nights, I have the chance to listen to the guests who can't find sleep. Some come straight to me because they know there is a naive, young guy at the desk that needs a lecture about life. Others need to ask a question so they know there is someone at the desk that cares. Either way, they give me the opportunity to listen to their story. They tell stories about loss, setbacks, and tragic events but also about happiness, trust, and ambitions. Now we come to the plot of this whole blog post. These stories are the real superhero stories for me. Why? First of all, they are not one dimensional. They refer to real human beings with real intention and more important real issues. That is what makes these stories so intense because while you are listening you realize piece by piece that the individual in front of you is talking about relatable human problems. As we all know, real issues are not easy to categorize as good or bad. After all, you are not so different; even though it seemed impossible some moments ago. On the other hand, relating to these stories can be hard since our guests experience things you and I can’t even imagine. Most people have never had to deal with mental and/or physical abuse or being marginalized every day, just to name a few. Despite this, our guests always greet me with a “Good Evening”, they say their bed number and give me a smile (some more enthusiastic than others). If all of that doesn’t make them superheroes then I don´t know what would. These are people who have to deal with some tough stuff and, even though they may struggle under all of that weight sometimes, they still stand.

The Shelter Crew poses for a picture at Opening Retreat
I think it is important to hear these superhero stories because unlike the other heroes we see today in the media, their story gets critically neglected by society. So next time a nice gentleman with slightly ripped clothes on the street has something to tell, maybe stop and listen. You might be fortunate enough to hear a superhero story. Or approach me or any of my fellow volunteers; we are always down to share some heroic stories from and with our guests. But be sure that we won´t share any names because every good superhero needs their mask.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Love and Belonging

2014-2015 FOV - Cara Ugolino

BrenĂ© Brown, a researcher on shame and empathy wrote, “Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women, and children. We’re hardwired for connection—it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering.” This quote comes to mind when I reflect on my year with Franciscan Outreach Volunteers (FOV). I never imagined this experience would be so life altering; however, my volunteer year has completely shaped my values regarding community and service.
Cara and her community set out on their journey together at Opening Retreat

Franciscan Outreach challenged me to recognize that individuals experiencing homelessness are people with incredibly rich and beautiful stories, identities, and strengths to share with this world. It made me realize that our society dehumanizes and does an incredible disservice to individuals that are living on our societal margins. We do not value the individual that is pregnant and can’t afford food, the person that has lost their job unexpectedly after having a heart attack, the individual that is experiencing mental health issues and no longer has family support, or the person who is dealing with a substance abuse issue. I quickly realized that we ignore those that differ from us, unless we or a loved one has a shared identity or similar experience to the individuals that are struggling. However, if my service year has taught me anything, it’s that we all are in this world to love and be loved. It’s as simple as that.
Karen and Cara carving up some birds in the Marquard Kitchen

Living in community with eleven other people has also made a large impact on my life. I am almost certain that I will never have an experience as fulfilling as this. I have never laughed harder in my life or been as frustrated as I was when living in community. I learned how to live with and love eleven other personalities that differed from my own. I constantly find myself missing Manu’s goofiness, Brett’s laugh, Theresa’s warmth, Cady’s silliness, drinking hot cocoa and coffee with Elias, dinner dates with Kristen, Nick sharing information about the world, Valentin’s Snapchats and waking me up in the morning, Sebi’s smile, Karen’s sassiness, and Maddy’s rap skills.
2014 -2015 Community in front of the Chicago skyline

Following my year of service I decided that I wanted to pursue a master’s in Social Work. I went on to start my graduate degree at the University of Chicago in Social Service Administration. During my first year of school, I worked with pre-k through third grade students in the CPS system who were experiencing behavioral and emotional problems. I ran a grief group for first grade children who had lost their parents to gun violence. This experience reiterated for me that children are either set up for failure or success, simply based on the neighborhoods that they reside in, and how much wealth is put into their school systems.
Cara, Karen, Manu, Brett, and Valentin in front of Cloud Gate (a.k.a. The Bean)

I am currently in my last year of grad school and I am working with youth who don’t have stable housing. Between this experience and my time with FOV, I have realized that my goal for after graduation is to work with LGBTQIA folks who are experiencing homelessness. Through my research in school, I found that according to the Society for Public Health Education (2012) five to seven percent of American youth identify as LGBTQ; which means that there are about 2.7 million LGBTQ youth in the United States. However, they found that a lack of family and social support often contributes to the LGBTQ youth homelessness rate of 40 percent. LGBTQ-identified youth are more likely to experience physical violence, drug use and abuse, earlier and unprotected sexual activity, self-inflicted violence, depression, bullying, teasing, harassment, physical assault, and suicide-related behaviors compared to their cisgender and heterosexual peers. It has quickly become evident to me that these individuals are vastly underserved. There is an incredible amount of work that needs to be done within organizations throughout Chicago in working toward becoming more culturally competent in terms of diverse gender and sexual identities.
Kristen, Brett, and Cara enjoy Frostys in the cold


This brings me back to that quote from BrenĂ© Brown; it’s worth repeating. “Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women, and children. We’re hardwired for connection—it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering.” Although our society does not always value individuals who are experiencing homelessness, I look forward to fostering a space of love, belonging, and connection in my future social work practice. I will forever be grateful to FOV for providing me with eleven other volunteers that value the same things for all people. I can only hope that I find individuals with similar values throughout the rest of my life.  
Manu, Elias, Theresa, Cara, Karen, Nick, and Maddy reconnected this summer